Saturday, November 23, 2013

Life’s a Glass Menagerie Waiting with King Richard in No Man’s Land for a Good Person in Szechwan, or What You Will

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has.
~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 

Act 1: Playing in Rolling Rep

Miss O’ attends the theater the way, she imagines, the religiously devout attend church: Spiritual sustenance, a need for redemption, a hope for a glimpse of grace, secret nookie in the pews. Recently I had the astonishing opportunity and enough cash to attend two examples of what is known as repertory theater, which is rare enough in itself, but this was the GOLD STAR of rep x 2. In repertory, the same set of actors play in various shows during the same season, alternating weeks, for example. Rolling rep refers to the show changing every other performance. The thrill of this is seeing real and astonishing transformation. We, in the audience, see the proof that such radical change in ourselves is possible: If these humble players can transform themselves so completely, one show to the next, why cannot we transform our own lives? And why not, indeed? Politics is moving fascist; the earth’s climate is moving to hot; corporations are spending billions to destroy drinking water and clean air for personal gain. It seems to me that in 2013, transformation is a damned important subject. But let's forget our troubles, get happy, and head to the Great White Way! Here’s a rundown of the shows and actors I’ve seen that have brought me to today’s blog-o-rama. After the summaries and recommendations, Miss O' will attempt to make a kind of meaning out of the experiences. Let's roll: Who's got their beer goggles on? 


Estragon: I can't go on like this.

Vladimir: That's what you think.
~ Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
~ Harold Pinter

 Images from Google via The Guardian

Theater Experience 1/2: Seeing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (their “Sirs” nowhere in the program) play (on night one) those existential vaudevillians Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi) (respectively) in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; and (on night two) those updated existential whatever-they-ares Spooner and Hirst in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, which Miss O’ professes to not understanding one bit. Suffice to say I believed them in every single second of each performance, as well as the performances of their supporting pair, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. It’s running through March 2, and if you don’t cough up the cash you won’t even remember you spent to see these legends and future legends, you’re just tragic. Or really broke, and then godspeed.


Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Dispute not with her; she is a lunatic.
~ William Shakespeare, Richard III

Images from Google via New York Times

Experience 3/4: Mark Rylance and (all-male) Company from The Globe Theatre performing Twelfth Night and The Tragedy of King Richard III, in an “original practices” tour—in other words, it’s a wooden stage lit by candles, with actors in Elizabethan dress and traditional music to accompany the action. Rylance plays Olivia in the first, and the title role of King Richard in the second. I’ve now seen Mr. Rylance in five Broadway performances, and feel confident in saying he’s the finest stage actor alive. And he remains really, really specifically himself, which is no mean feat. The actors working with him are superb, their transformations total from show to show. The themes of the shows are curiously connected, but that’s because it’s a theme of any human story: The consequences of duplicity are far-reaching, and are out of the power of any single human to control or command. Or something like that. If you can, SEE THEM BOTH. If not both, see Twelfth Night. GO.


“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
~ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Image from Google via The New York Times

Theater Experience 5: So Howard’s friend Rick was coming from Atlanta for his annual fall Broadway buffet, and insisted we all see The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith (whose Gentleman Caller is the most understandable I've seen), yes, but really starring the language of Tennessee Williams, delivered in full gorgeousness amidst a stunning and symbolic design, under the direction of the astonishing John Tiffany. So there’s all the gushing out of the way. This delicate play has always annoyed me. It just has. So thanks to all the elements coming together so perfectly, Williams’s tender story gets the dramatic treatment it really deserves. Again, see it: You see how his upbringing made Williams’s alter-ego, Tom, into the writer he had to become. That such agony could produce such a beautiful transformation is miraculous. You leave crying, but also hopeful, if you can imagine. Again, for the love of god, GO.

Before Theater Experience 6, A Little Backstory: When Miss O’ was a young college theater student, the first play assigned to her in her very first college drama class was a play by the German expressionist playwright (huh?) Bertolt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Miss O’ feels that that was a really fucking cruel trick to play on a freshman from the Virginia suburbs. Then the same professor galloped on to The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. And so it went; and thus it was our heroine took her first quarter C- in Introduction to Drama and decided to change her major to English. Fortunately a nice professor talked her down from the catwalk by pointing out that really, that was as hard as the plays would ever get. And that was true. And sometimes professors just like to show off, even at the expense of their students’ enthusiasm and psychic health.

Before you, the O’Blog Reader, or Blgreader, head into this dramaturgically robust and therefore possibly daunting entry, here’s a sampling of what Miss O’—high school acting veteran of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You and Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, and C+ reader of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in Mr. Corbin’s AP English 12 class—had to grab onto with her tender, globule mind:  Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which takes place in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, concerns, at its close, which woman has the most claim to a child: His birth mother, who abandoned him and now wants him back; or the servant, Grusha, who raised the child. Bible readers will recognize Solomon in the judge, Azdak, but here the judge is a fool and a fraud elevated to the level of judge by foolish people. To decide the rightful mother, Azdak has a circle drawn on the floor and has the child, Michael, stand in the middle. He tells each woman (Natella, the birth mother, and Grusha, the servant with whom Natella left the child) to take Michael by the arm. From here I’ll offer the GradeSaver website summary of the play’s ending I found while trolling online, which is far clearer than my professor ever was.

Azdak tells them that whichever woman can pull the child out of the circle will get him. Natella pulls hard and yanks the child out of the circle; meanwhile, Grusha has refused to pull…. Azdak orders them to make the test one more time. Again Grusha lets go of the child's arm. Azdak then says that it is now obvious who the true mother is. He gives Michael to Grusha and advises her to leave the city. He then orders Natella to disappear before he fines her for fraud. Michael's estates fall to the city and he decides to have them called Azdak's Garden. His last act is to sign the divorce papers [of an old couple who have petitioned him]. However, Azdak "mistakenly" divorces Grusha instead of the old couple. Everyone present then starts dancing. During the dancing Azdak slowly is hidden from view until he disappears by the end. The Singer ends the play by describing Azdak's reign as a "brief golden age, / almost an age of justice." He then concludes with the lines, "Children to the motherly, that they prosper, / Carts to good drivers, that they be driven well, / The valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit."

For Brecht, the idea of what is just was an ongoing exploration. He explored it through what he called The Epic Theatre—a theater of large ideas told through expressionistic approaches; that is, Brecht’s actors “broke the fourth wall,” that invisible wall between the audience and the action. Therefore when a narrator yells out at the audience in a desperate plea at a desperate time in the plot, “Who will help these people?” Brecht knows that the polite audience will remain silent. You see what happens? Brecht’s idea was to use theater to implicate all of us in the ongoing injustices of the world, even the world of the stage.

“The theater-goer in conventional dramatic theater says: Yes, I've felt that way, too. That's the way I am. That's life. That's the way it will always be. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is no escape for him. That's great art—Everything is self- evident. I am made to cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. But the theater-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that. You can't do that. That's very strange, practically unbelievable. That has to stop. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him. That's great art—nothing is self-evident. I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh.''
~Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German playwright, poet; On Theater, "Entertainment or Education?" (1936) on the difference between conventional theater and Brecht's “epic theater”

So you see it was theater that led Miss O’ to become obsessed with politics, and it is the insanity of politics that pushes Miss O’ back to the theater, where she hopes to see that there is more to life than politics. That said, there are two questions Miss O’ asks for the artistic soul of a woman under capitalism: For Liberals, is “goodness” only giving freely? Is “evil” only property acquisition? Or, for Conservatives, the reverse?

The divide of human beings—the split in ourselves—as I said, is the essence of dramatic tension: a) Those of us who want to do good, and are demonized for it (President Obama and the Affordable Healthcare Act); b) Those of us who blatantly do bad, and are celebrated for it (President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, etc.); c) Those who say they want to do good, and do bad; d) Those who sometimes behave badly, but work for the greater good;  e) Those who claim to desire good people, and then exploit the good until they have nothing left to give; f) Those of us who have a good person working for the greater good of all of us, but who attack that good person because he or she does not meet our preconceived notions of what a “good person” should look like, sound like, dress like, come from, or gender-identify with; g) Those of us who follow the doers of bad, even as we complain about what they do to us.

One trouble is the conflation of “good” with “perfection,” is that we pre-judge what we mean “perfection” to be. God is “perfect,” and yet tornadoes flatten Illinois, typhoons flatten the Philippines.

''You don't need to pray to God any more when there are storms in the sky, but you do have to be insured.''
~Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German dramatist, poet; Pelagea Vlasova, in The Mother, sc. 10

Jesus tells folks that to be truly free, to be truly good, you have to throw away all your possessions and follow him. And we all know that the most devout Christians do not walk about nude and preach the Word in sandlots. So should a truly “good” person not work? Not build anything? Not eat or drink anything? You see the dilemma.

And what does a “good” father look like? A “good” mother? A “good” leader? A “good” citizen? What is “justice”? What is “right”?

[quoting the prophet] "'The world can stay as it is if enough people are found living lives worthy of human beings.' Good people, that is."
~Third god, Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan

Image from Google via 

And now: Theater Experience 6: These same questions are raised in Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan, in a superb production mounted by The Foundry Theater and running right now at The Public Theater, which sounds appropriate. In this play, three gods are wandering China in search of one good person. They base their judgment upon who will give them lodging for the night. The only one who agrees is a prostitute named Shen Te, whom the gods don’t know to be a prostitute. In the morning they hear of her destitute state, and agree that it wouldn’t be against the teachings to pay for their lodgings, and they give her 1,000 silver dollars. Here begins the drama: Newly wealthy, Shen Te’s life becomes, if possible, even worse than ever. This is not a trumped up plot on Brecht’s part: You watch as Shen Te buys a small tobacco business, finds she’s been swindled into paying too much, owes a carpenter who was never paid, has old friends begging on her doorstep, and who finds love, only to learn he wants her only for the money she can give him to make his way in the world. By then she is broke, and her goodness only begets more complaints from everyone about how she is failing them. Her solution is to invent a brutal, ruthless capitalist cousin, Shui Ta, a man whom everyone cowers before, whom everyone works for at his bidding for lousy wages, whom everyone—after initially finding impressive—comes to hate and fear…and yet under whose pressure the people become productive and, weirdly, take responsibility for themselves even as they are victimized.

Carpenter: Call Shen Te, someone! She's good!
Shui Ta [Shen Te, disguised as her “cousin”]: Certainly. She's ruined.
~ Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan

[At intermission, my friend, Mark, who had invited me, told me about how the director of a choir he sings in is always at odds with the conductor—the never-ending fight between good business sense and good artistic sense that costs money, and that really, you have to have both; and from there we discussed the way the “goodness” and passion of the artist is often taken advantage of and even scorned—and how from our artists and leaders, we expect perfection, not goodness, and we want it with no strings (which explains why someone as inherently good as Bill Clinton is disdained for enjoying a blowjob off the clock). We asked ourselves what the play was asking, Why are we humans driven by greedy self-interested business taskmasters and will in fact work only when we are mistreated by the very people we despise? So back to the show!]

"The little lifeboat is swiftly sent down.
Too many men too greedily
Hold on to it as they drown."
~Shen Te, whose goodness is destroying her financially and personally

In the sweatshop world, though, they long for the return of the “good” Shen Te, and when she “returns”…they treat her as badly as before, demanding more than she can give. By the play’s end, the “jig is up,” Shen Te is revealed to be Shui Ta, one and the same—a deep divide in the human condition (played by a transgender performer)—and here Brecht leaves the play open, as he does all his plays—he leaves the audience to face the dilemma themselves:

"It is for you to find a way, my friends,
To help good men arrive at happy ends.
You write the happy ending to the play!
…There must be a way, there must.”

So what will it be? Lisa Kron, the actress who delivered the final lines, fairly wept at the final words, slightly different from the ones above, calling for the fact that for the GOOD, there must be a happy ending, “…there MUST.” How are we to achieve that?


I walked away from all this theater thinking, as I said, about language, because it was the language of the playwrights that took center stage. That these plays are revivals of old master does not surprise me, because in the late 20th and early 21st century, it seems to Miss O’ that the beauty of language has been upstaged by quick messages, cheap sentiment, and heavy irony. (She herself is guilty of playing a tiny, blogosphere role in this movement.) It’s language that is the reason to see theater, the way image is the reason to see movies. And the way asshattedness is the reason we participate in American politics.

Act 2: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Harry Reid, Harry Reid

''A man who sees another man on the street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time he'll give him sixpence. But the second time it'll only be a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he'll have him cold-bloodedly handed over to the police.''
~Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German dramatist, poet; Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, Act 1, Sc. 1

Now it's time for This Week in Democracy, once again reviewing the process whereby citizens freely elect humans to represent them, and the majority rules. It’s a crazy system made even crazier when a certain political party cannot stand that a majority of citizens chose Liberals over Conservatives, and to get their way, the minority party OBSTRUCTS in order to prevent the MAJORITY from actually GOVERNING. For the past six years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev), whom frankly no one can stand, has acquiesced to the stupid “filibuster madness” which has allowed the Republicans to obstruct 93 (NINETY-THREE) presidential judicial nominations, as well as stop 82 (EIGHT-TWO) votes during the Obama Administration. During the history of this democratic republic, the opposing party has filibustered ALL THE PRESIDENTS COMBINED a total of 86 (EIGHTY-SIX) times.

And just look at how much DID NOT GET DONE because a few Republicans prevented a majority vote from moving things along. Please LOOK AT THE LEGISLATION.
Look at what those demonic Democrats
wanted to accomplish:

Create jobs! Bring jobs HOME! Help students with college loans! Criminal background checks for gun purchasers! Paycheck fairness!

Graphic: source: Bernie Sanders’s Facebook Page

So, elected majority or no, Sen. Reid, not wanting to seem like a ruthless power grabber, had not seriously considered eliminating the 60-vote “super-majority” to pass any meaningful legislation to return instead to what was historically a simple majority vote. No, he dithered. He withered. He blithered. The GOP (standing in for the actual country) stalled. Stalled. Shut down. Restarted. And stalled. But goddammit to hell, 93 nominations sat un-voted upon. Legislative acts died. We had to get a move on, people, and so, finally, after firing countless warning shots, Sen. Reid got the Senate (and not even all the democrats agreed, because the party I am forced to vote for is basically a pussy outfit) to do away with the filibuster and the super-majority. Finally. Within hours, one judicial appointee sped through.

But leave it to the histrionic right wing to feel that democratically elected majority rule = dictatorship, because what they really want is a simple dictatorship. On their terms.

''The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it.''
~Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German dramatist, poet; Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, Act 3, Sc. 7

Point me to the drama, the HYSTERIA, please, and pass the smelling salts! Talk to me, William Rivers Pitt:

Boy o boy, the bodies on the fainting couches are stacked three deep over at the Washington Post in the aftermath of the Senate's historic rule change regarding the filibuster.
Dana Milbank: "The Democrats' naked power grab...they will come to deeply regret what they have done."

I am glad Mr. Pitt points out the screech of the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, whose cry against Reid’s “naked power grab” (as if Harry Reid is no less a power than that real murdering power grabber King Richard III, so here I must ask you to imagine Shakespeare trying to build a play out of the political life of Harry REIDand who just fell completely asleep?) struck your Miss O’ yesterday as particularly asinine, especially since all the pieces Pitt cites acknowledge that this vote came about as a result of unprecedented and unending Republican OBSTRUCTION to the process of governing the nation. Miss O’s response to the accusations against Reid: “Really? This was a ‘naked power grab’? If so, my dears: This was the slowest-motion, most fully-clothed, ‘I’m coming out now, cover your eyes’-loudly announced ‘naked power-grab’ Miss O’ has witnessed in her lifetime. Oh, and FUCK THE REPUBLICANS." I say that with love.

Act 3: Failing Better All the Time

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
~Samuel Beckett

The tensions we humans live with are evident in all of those diverse plays—from double-lives and duplicity, whether in service to the desire to do good, to get love, or to have vengeance: Shakespeare makes the stories comic, tragic, and also epic. Beckett explores the human territory in this tiny way, with two tramps on a road, and a simpler dilemma: the necessity to remain and the desire to go. In a deceptively small, domestic way, the fragility and resilience of the human heart are really made mythic in The Glass Menagerie, for as Amanda changes her story so as not to give up on life, and as Laura immediately turns the broken unicorn into a story about fitting in with the horses (allowing her Gentleman Caller a graceful apology), so too will Tom go on to survive by writing the story of his family. All these diverse hours on the stage suggest there is no way to make it all better, but you can make it art, realize it's your story. Live that thing.

What is not acceptable, all the plays suggest, is running away as a response to a time of struggle, as Tom and Laura’s father does in Menagerie, or as Shen Te does, twice, in Good Person, or as the tramps' patience makes clear in Godot—somehow you have to face it all, and that is what makes the American GOP so despicable right now. They want to sweep all the problems under the rug, and if that won’t work, they will dissolve and destroy democracy. Even Richard III, the vilest of characters, stays on the battlefield wounded and without a horse, to fight to his death. Suppose, in our tenderer dramas, Laura had deliberately smashed her entire menagerie, or  Tom had run out, or Shen Te had never returned to admit the truth of her identity, or the tramps in fact left—none of the big questions the plays present would have gotten answered, or worked toward answers. Would the plays even have mattered?

The plays demand that we as human beings look at the motivations of our actions. After seeing shows like this, one looks at every human act afresh. The themes spill over into the real world of our lives, as good art should. It's thrilling, a shared experience among us all in the audience; even when we don't agree on how "good" the show was, we shared this, didn't we.

To every yin, its yang. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every rose has its thorn. But in the human wading through current events, as I saw played out on the Broadway stage over the past two weeks, the struggles of humans have to get us someplace. Or not. And even when any movement forward, around, and into the issues cannot exactly bring peace or closure, surely the process should be a celebration of that great human achievement: Language.

This should also hold true on the national stage of politics, that in the course of human events, you use your WORDS, your gorgeous access to the power of language; and once you argue, make your cases, and do your best, in the end, unfettered majority has to rule, and you compromise for the greater good. Failing that, you tell one party, “Go fuck yourself,” and return to the ease of the ol’ “up-down” vote. That is, DEMOCRACY.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

Estragon: Nothing to be done.
Vladimir: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion.
                        ~Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

I would like to close with these thoughts about the tone that this wayward, utterly manufactured, and dangerous so-called Tea Party has set for general American behavior. Let’s use the public theater as the shining example, for after several weeks of sacrificing financially in order to see the best that professional Broadway theater can offer—from Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Beckett and Pinter, to Mark Rylance & Co. in Twelfth Night and Richard III, to Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto in The Glass Menagerie, to Taylor Mac in The Good Person of Szechwan: If Miss O’ could offer a call to action, it would involve the following speech, which she will deliver over the public address system of the theater that finally agrees to putting on her one-woman + Ryan Duncan (as everyone else) show, The Miss O’ Show, Teacher’s Edition.

[Scene: A fully lit house of a lovely black box theater in Manhattan, say. Audience is seated, curtain not yet up. Lights begin to lower and a public address system begins playing the recorded voice of your Miss O’, with a tip o' the hat to Lucky in Godot.]

[In adorable, gentle voice] Miss O’ would like to remind you that the taking of photographs and the use of recording devices is strictly prohibited, but not just because of legal implications. No, it’s because when you are photographing or otherwise recording an experience, the chances are you are not HAVING an experience. [begins vocal ascent to outrage] Did that ever occur to you? And while we’re on the subject, would you please, for the love of everything holy, silence your goddamned cell phones? Seriously—shut off the freakity freak freak phone. NOW. You, you doing the final last text message, it’s really not important. This may come as a bitter surprise, but nothing you have to type, or read, is as important as what is ABOUT TO HAPPEN if only you could be alert to it. And you, that’s right, you with the iPad, NOW, shut if off NOW, because the people around, who are trying to get centered by shaking off the madness that is New York City at the theater witching hour:  they want to fucking kill you right now. But not as much as they want to kill Plastic Bag woman, that woman (and it's ALWAYS a middle-aged woman, usually alone) sitting next to you with the giant purse containing like, twenty-eight very unfresh plastic grocery bags, inside one of which is that thing she suddenly needs to pop in her mouth at the climax of the play, or, almost worse, right in the early moments of exposition. So, sad bag lady, get that must-have-able thing out of the noise-blown sack NOW. No, really. Because we are done with you. Which reminds me: Soda people, drink up! Forgetting about the sickness that is our national need to consume every second of our repellant capitalist lives, oh, big gulping drinker: Do the crowd and the actors a favor, won't you, and move the straw up and down one last squeaky time, suck the last slurp of carbonated beverage leavings, shake that ice like a motherfucker, and let the cup GO. THIS. IS. LIVE. I can hear you. So can EVERYONE ELSE seated in this actual space.  At the lot of you, Miss O’ used to mind-scream, “Fuck you, you fucking fuckers,” but now, instead, she quotes her therapist, Goldye:  “Be HERE. Have THIS experience.” Hey! Here’s an idea! Make a radical change, right this second, a shift from your total and deeply unattractive narcissism (that's you, the constant HEAD-POSITION-SHIFTERS who wade from side to side as if no one behind you wants to view the action) to making a new choice to be present to the thing you and everyone else paid a whole fucking lot of money to see. P.S. What makes you think Miss O’ won’t come out there and smack you? You don’t know me. [resuming adorable voice, crackling candy wrapper] Thanks, and enjoy the show.

It’s not easy to get along with assholes. It’s not easy to get and keep an audience’s attention. And it’s even less easy to make a clean exit. And yet, exit Miss O’ must. Yet here she will remain.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?

Vladimir: Yes, let's go. (They do not move.)
              ~Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

 Foster: Listen. You know what it's like when you're in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I'll show you. It's like this.
   (He turns out the light. BLACKOUT)
    ~ Harold Pinter, No Man’s Land

Until the debacles of the next act,
Kisses, love, and power grabbing,
Nakedly always,
Miss O’

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